Monday, March 22, 2010

Middle Eastern Spinach Turnovers

An old college friend once told me that in Japan, the progress of the cherry blossoms is reported on the evening news. There are special color codes for buds, for partially-opened flowers, and for those in full bloom. These are placed upon green screen maps for television audience to see, and plan their picnicking accordingly. Maybe it's not so exciting in real life, but in concept it sounds slightly dreamy -- natural beauty making it into the evening news just for its own sake. Such excitement is understandable. Even if cherry blossoms aren't one of your national symbols, they're still breathtakingly beautiful. And right now in Portland, the blossoms are out in full force.

Although we officially crossed into Spring just a few days ago, we've been feeling it for quite some time. The trillium have blossomed out in the woods, and the daffodils have blossomed out on the lawns. Speaking of, we're already in need of a mow. I headed out the other day with nothing more than a cotton cardigan to protect me from the balmy weather. Spring, I have missed you.

This past weekend a few of our neighbors hosted a picnic to celebrate the cherry blossoms at a local park on a volcano. (What? Your town doesn't have one? And yes, it's defunct.) We sat amidst a shower of blossoms, which according to one guest were actually flowering plums, not cherries. But it's all relative. They were gorgeous. We caught up with friends and enjoyed the sunshine. And, of course, we ate.

Having recently mastered hamantaschen, I felt up to tackling another triangular turnover. Although I'm fairly besotted with a cheesy spanakopita, this leaner Middle Eastern version of the classic spinach pie seemed better suited to the occasion. It's a one-hand snack, with no drippy sauce or need for utensils. And the dough-encased turnovers were sturdy enough to survive the hike in a tupperware in my backpack, as my dog towed me the 30 or so blocks from home.

Instead of creamy cottage cheese and salty feta, the spinach in these turnovers is accented with just a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, pine nuts and onions. I snuck in a sprinkling of sour sumac and sprinkling of grassy/nutty za'atar, but both of these are quite optional. The spinach is rubbed with salt and squeezed, a nifty trick that releases liquid and reduces the volume, without sacrificing the fresh taste. The bright, slightly puckery filling inside the savory dough makes for a perfect Spring surprise. Be sure to pack some for your next picnic.

Middle Eastern Spinach Turnovers

Filling inspired by numerous sources, dough tweaked from Chicho's Kitchen, which I found via a comment on this very site. Thanks, internet!

yields ~30 small turnovers

3/4 cup water, at room temperature
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
additional flour as needed

1 large bunch spinach, washed and chopped
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided, plus more for brushing
1 large or 2 small onions, finely diced
1 tsp sumac (optional)
1/2 tsp zataar (optional)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Pour the water in a large bowl (or mixer bowl, if you have a mixer with a dough hook. Sprinkle in the yeast, and allow it to soften for a few minutes. Add the salt, sugar, egg, olive oil, and whole wheat flour. Mix well. Add the remaining white flour until a slack-yet-workable dough is formed (this may take more or less flour). Cover the bowl, and set aside for ~1 hour.

While the dough is resting, prepare the filling. Sprinkle the salt over the spinach, and set aside to allow it to begin to give off water.

In a heavy pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions, and saute until soft and translucent, but not colored, ~7 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add the sumac and zataar if using. Set aside.

Take the salted spinach, and squeeze it to release as much liquid as you can. It will reduce slightly, and become a bit translucent, like a day-old salad. Place the squeezed leaves in a bowl, and toss with the onions. Sprinkle on the lemon juice, tossing, and add just enough additional olive oil until it is just moistened (better to err on the side of dry, otherwise your turnovers won't hold together). Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and grease two baking sheets (or preheat pizza stones).

Turn your risen dough out onto a lightly floured countertop. Roll out to a thickness between 1/8" and 1/4". If the dough doesn't roll, let it rest a few minutes to relax the gluten, and try again. Cut out 3" circles. Place heaping tablespoons of dough in the center of the circles, and pull the sides up to form a triangular shape. Squeeze tightly to seal the edges! Place your triangles on the prepared sheets, brush with the additional olive oil, and bake until golden, ~20 minutes. Serve warm or cold, at the picnic of your choosing.


  1. Za'tar, check! Sumac, needs to go on the Spice House list. Then I'll be making these, I love "pie" type foods with whole wheat doughs... Thanks for posting this!

  2. This was a big hit with my friends tonight - delicious!

  3. This is the BEST Food ever - I can eat them all day long ! Love them and they are healthy !